News release: Pruning Techniques

Tim Baker, MU Extension Horticulture Specialist
102 N. Main, Suite 1, Gallatin, MO 64640

Release date: Mar. 21, 2013

Title: Pruning Techniques

Although you can prune deciduous plants any time of the year, late winter is an especially good time of the year to prune them.  This would apply to both fruit trees and the trees in your yard.  Late winter is good because the plant is still dormant, but you’ve escaped the worst of winter, and spring is just around the corner.  That means the cuts you make will be fresh when the plant breaks dormancy, and there will be a shorter time until regrowth can “heal” the wound.

Of course, plants don’t “heal” in the sense that people and animals do.  The best they can do is seal off the wound with new tissue, which helps to reduce the chance of disease organisms invading the wound.

Illustration of cuts for pruning deciduous treesPruning small twigs is usually not too critical, but the removal of large limbs can pose a greater problem.  The cut is so much larger, and improper techniques may not encourage good regrowth and therefore leave your tree more open to disease problems later. 

Some older texts used to suggest cutting the branch flush to the trunk.  This is no longer advised.  It is now known that the branch collar, that portion of the branch where it connects to the trunk, is very important in wound healing. 

With a large limb, it’s best to make three cuts. First make a cut on the underside of the branch, some distance from the trunk. This cut only goes 1/3 way through the branch. The purpose of this cut is to stop any tendency of the falling branch to tear a strip of bark from the tree as it falls. 

Next, go further up the branch, away from the trunk and the cut you just made, and make a full cut to remove the branch. This will leave you with a stub.

Finally, make a cut right where the branch collar starts on the limb.  Don’t cut the branch collar off.  If the tree is healthy, the branch collar will then produce new tissue which will grow over the cut, and seal it off.  I’ve seen cases where this worked successfully and cases where it didn’t work at all.  It is dependent on how vigorous the tree is and the species of the tree. But if you cut the branch collar off, you’ll lessen your chances of good regrowth and sealing of the wound.

What about wound paints and sealants?  The current advice from professional horticulturists says that it really doesn’t help, and may actually hinder the healing process.